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Supreme Court of Korea overturns gay sex conviction of military personnel

“Punishing these incidents could infringe upon the right to equality, the dignity and value as human and the right to pursue happiness”

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Photo Credit: Republic of Korea Army public affairs

SEOCHO-GU,  Seoul, South Korea – The Supreme Court of Korea overturned a 2019 military court conviction of two service members of the Republic of Korea Army, also known as the ROK, sentenced to suspended prison terms for their same-sex relationship.

“Punishing these incidents could infringe upon the right to equality, the dignity and value as human and the right to pursue happiness as guaranteed by the Constitution,” the high court said in its ruling. Under Korea’s civilian law homosexual activity is not illegal, but there are provisions in the country’s code of military justice that can lead to conviction and prison sentences for same-sex sexual acts.

Reuters reported the ministry of defence said it would thoroughly review “the intent of the Supreme Court’s ruling”. In the past, South Korean authorities have defended the military code against same-sex relationships as necessary to maintain discipline.

The two defendants were indicted in 2017 for having same-sex intercourse in 2016, while off duty and outside their base, which is punishable with prison for up to two years under the Military Criminal Act.

Korea’s civil and human rights group’s applauded the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Lim Tae-hoon the Director of the Military Human Rights Center released a statement Thursday after the ruling taking aim at the military’s position.

“How long will we leave a backward law that judges an individual’s private life in a court of law because he is a sexual minority?

With this ruling as an opportunity, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex sex can no longer be evaluated as an act worthy of punishment.” 

Lim Tae-hoon told Reuters the military act is under review in the Constitutional Court after the filing of numerous petitions against it, and the center urged the court to quickly complete its review of what it called an “outdated and bad” law.

Last year, the Daejeon District Court ruled against the ROK in a case over a Trans soldier who had committed suicide prior to the ruling that Staff Sergeant Byun Hui-su, as her Trans gender was already legally recognized, the ROK Army should have used standards applied to women to determine her fitness to serve.

Ruling in Staff Sergeant Byun Hui-su’s favour, the court noted: ‘When based on standards of women, there are no mental or physical disability grounds for dismissal.” The court then ordered the ROK Army to reinstate her.

Sadly there was no celebratory acknowledgement because on March 3, 2021 she took her own life and was discovered deceased by emergency officials at her home in the city of Cheongju, south of the South Korean capital city of Seoul.

She took the Army to court with the assistance of the Center for Military Human Rights.

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Japan’s high court rules restroom restrictions for trans illegal

The ruling is significant as it’s the first time Japan’s high court has ruled on a case regarding LGBTQ employees in the workplace

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Japan’s Supreme Court's main courtroom. (Photo Credit: Government of Japan, courts division)

HAYABUSACHO-CHIYODA, Japan – In an unanimous decision Tuesday, Japan’s highest court ruled that workplace bathroom restrictions on a transgender female government worker was illegal reversing a lower court’s decision.

The landmark Supreme Court ruling was in the case of a trans female worker at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. In court documents, the plaintiff in her fifties who works at the economy ministry sued the government filed a suit in 2015 after she was banned by her government office from using female bathrooms on the floor in the ministry where her office was located and instead was directed to use bathrooms two floors above or below her office floor.

According to court filings by her attorney Toshimasa Yamashita, the ministry had adopted the policy “in the belief that there was a smaller chance her female colleagues would feel uncomfortable if she used a bathroom that her immediate co-workers would not be using.”

Japan’s Public Broadcasting outlet NHK reported that the Supreme Court’s presiding judge Yukihiko Imasaki said that the National Personnel Authority’s decision to uphold the ministry’s policy of restricting the plaintiff’s bathroom usage gave “excessive consideration” to her co-workers and as a result “unfairly neglected the plaintiff’s disadvantage.”

“(The government decision) significantly lacks validity,” Imasaki said. “Therefore, it is illegal, since it is beyond their discretion and is an abuse of their power.”

The ruling is significant as it’s the first time Japan’s high court has ruled on a case regarding LGBTQ employees in the workplace which according to the plaintiff’s attorney will have wide-ranging impact across Japanese society affecting how companies and government ministries handle similar cases regarding transgender employees in the future.

The plaintiff herself told reporters: “This is a Supreme Court ruling for people who are transgender or experience gender dysphoria, but the judges’ opinions could also apply in other human rights issues where discrimination still happens.”

The Associated Press noted: “The decision comes at a time of increased awareness and support for the rights of LGBTQ+ people. Activists have increased their efforts to achieve an anti-discrimination law since a former aide to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in February that he wouldn’t want to live next to LGBTQ+ people and that citizens would flee Japan if same-sex marriage were allowed.”

In a news conference after the ruling was issued, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters the government will consider what to do, given that its argument has been rejected.

“We will do our best to create a society where diversity and human rights are respected, and people of all identities, including members of sexual minorities and the majority, can enjoy full lives,” Matsuno said.

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Bisexual LGBTQ+ YouTuber challenges fellow South Koreans

“It’s gonna take a long time for Korea to change- I’ll just do whatever I can, but I can’t be overwhelmed or too stressed”

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(Photo courtesy of Kelsey the Korean's Instagram page)

SEOUL, Republic of Korea – Kelsey the Korean is a bisexual YouTuber best known for her refreshing directness and crazy life stories. Made obvious by her username, she is a Korean named Kelsey making videos in English about South Korea, LGBTQ issues, sex, mental health, her family feuds and more, with the aim of fostering a no-bullshit insight into South Korean society. 

You’d never guess by watching Kelsey’s videos about her colorful sex life or uncensored stories about her over-bearing “tiger mom,” but Kelsey is actually an introvert. 

“A lot of people assume that I’m extraverted but it’s like, uhh … I’m not. In reality it’s one of the best jobs [YouTuber] for an introvert ‘cause you don’t have any co-workers basically, and you can just talk to a camera,” she said. “People sort of get scared when they meet me in person — or startled — because they’re like, “You’re so quiet, are you mad?’”

As an open bisexual woman in a conservative country, Kelsey is brave. 

“It’s harder than North America in general, it depends on which district obviously [of America] because I’ve heard even in America there are some places where it’s as conservative as Korea, so I don’t want to make it like a dichotomy where the West is so ‘open’ and Korea is ‘not,’” she said. “In Korea it’s definitely harder to find people in my generation [25- to 30-years old] that are open — which is a little bit shocking to me — but it’s easier in other ways because Korean people are not very outspoken.”

A 2021 survey showed that 26.5 percent of South Koreans would accept an LGBTQ neighbor, 13.8 percent would accept an LGBTQ co-worker and 5.3 percent would accept an LGBTQ best friend.  

(Photo courtesy of Kelsey the Korean’s Instagram page)

Kelsey is not a complete stranger to anti-LGBTQ hate. 

In one of her YouTube videos she visited gay Pride in Seoul which was met with homophobic protestors. 

“Last year was really shocking because there were so many Christian protestors who were really mad, and the shocking thing was they even brought their children, who were like 5 or 7 and made them hold ‘gay people have AIDS’ [signs],” she said.

Seoul’s Queer Culture Festival (gay Pride) hit a wall this year when it was denied a permit by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, despite holding the festival in Seoul Plaza for many years. The Seoul Metropolitan Government’s reasoning was that another group had requested access to Seoul Plaza on July 1 so the government gave the other — a Christian youth concert — priority. Despite this setback, Seoul’s Queer Culture Festival organizers didn’t let this stop them celebrating pride at an alternative space. 

(Photo courtesy of Kelsey the Korean’s Instagram page)

South Korea has rapidly progressed since the Korean War and society is more open-minded and accepting but society is still not open enough to accept openly LGBTQ people. How does Kelsey feel about the future of LGBTQ rights in Korea? 

“Oh God, I’ve only been following gay rights in Korea for five years,” she said. “It’s not good because since the Yoon administration, they’re making it harder definitely.”

Yoon Suk-Yeol is the current politically conservative president of South Korea.  

(Photo courtesy of Kelsey the Korean’s Instagram page)

“As for the future of LGBTQ rights in Korea, I don’t know. It could go either way in my opinion. Even in the youth I don’t see that much change, but our youth percentage is declining, so there’s gonna be more boomers as time goes on and they’re not gonna be open. They’re gonna be really boomer,” she said.

Although Kelsey wants more LGBTQ acceptance in Korea, education on transgender identity in a Vancouver school was a step too far for her. 

“With LGBTQ rights, Korea is very conservative but I was really taken aback by how far the west seems to have taken it because when I was in Vancouver six months ago I became friends with this 8-year-old boy and he was in elementary school. He said that in Vancouver it was very left politically and in his public elementary school during sex-ed they taught his class that there [are] infinite genders. Then a trans person came in and just talked about his life trauma — I guess — and how they wanted to be called ‘they.’” she said. “I [was] so shocked to hear that because, personally — maybe I’ll change my mind and be so shocked at how conservative I am reading back to this article in 10 years — but right now that is too far for me. I don’t want it to be in public education [that] you can be trans or you can be gay when you’re 8- [years old].”   

Kelsey wants to uplift other LGBTQ viewers who watch her YouTube channel. Her words of advice? 

“First of all be patient because people like me who are Gen-Z and multicultural pick the best country they’ve been in — in regards to how it benefits them — and they’re like ‘Why isn’t my country, right now, not fitting that standard?’” she said. 

Kelsey calls herself a multicultural Korean because she lived in Australia and Canada. 

“It’s gonna take a long time for Korea to change,” she said. “The conclusion I came to is that I’ll just do whatever I can, but I can’t be overwhelmed or too stressed.”

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Second Japanese court rules gay marriage ban is unconstitutional

The judge said more people have become supportive of recognizing same-sex marriage, & the reasoning behind excluding it is becoming “shaky”

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Nagoya District Court as same-sex ruling is issued. (Screenshot/NHK, Japan Public Broadcasting Corporation)

NAGOYA, Aichi Prefecture, Japan – In a ruling issued Tuesday, local time, the Nagoya District Court became the second major higher court in the country to rule that the lack of legal recognition of same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

Presiding Judge Osamu Nishimura said more people have become supportive of recognizing same-sex marriage, and the reasoning behind excluding same-sex couples from the legal marriage system is becoming “shaky,” resulting in a situation that is “difficult to ignore,” the Kyodo News agency  reported.

Kyodo also noted the court pointed out that the public remains divided over the issue, and it was only in 2015 that a system to issue certificates recognizing same-sex couples as being in “relationships equivalent to marriage” was introduced by local governments in Japan for the first time.

In March of 2021 the Sapporo District Court issued its ruling that the local in Sapporo government’s actions violated two provisions of the Japanese Constitution: Article 14 that ensures the right to equal treatment and Article 24, which does not expressly deny the right of marriage to same-sex couples.

In Tuesday’s ruling, Judge Osamu Nishimura echoed the Sapporo decision saying that a failure to recognize same-sex marriage violates Article 14 of the Constitution, which stipulates that all people are equal, and Article 24, which stipulates that “laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes.”

The two rulings are at odds with opinions issued by other high courts across Japan. Public Media Broadcaster NHK reported that in June 2022, the Osaka District Court ruled that the ban does not violate the Constitution. The judge said Article 24 stipulates that marriage shall be based on the mutual consent of parties from both sexes.

The Tokyo District Court also ruled the ban constitutional in November that year. At the same time, the judge said not providing legal protections for same-sex families represents an “unconstitutional state.”

With this second ruling, pressure is building on the Japanese Diet (Parliament) to legalize same-sex unions.

The case, brought by two male residents in a relationship from Aichi Prefecture, were represented by attorney Yoko Mizushima who told reporters: “This ruling has rescued us from the hurt of last year’s ruling that said there was nothing wrong with the ban, and the hurt of what the government keeps saying,” referring to the June 2022, Osaka District Court ruling last year that the ban was not unconstitutional.

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Uzbek authorities harass activist at European development bank meeting

Authorities confiscated Nezir Sinani’s Pride tote bags

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Nezir Sinani, left, an LGBTQ+ and intersex rights activist from Kosovo, holds a Pride tote bag while attending European Bank for Reconstruction and Development meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. (Photo courtesy of Caspar

SAMARKAND, Uzbekistan — Uzbek authorities last week harassed an LGBTQ+ and intersex rights activist while he was attending a European Bank for Reconstruction and Development meeting that took place in the Central Asian country.

Nezir Sinani, who is from Kosovo, is the co-director of Re-course, which is based in the Netherlands. 

He said Uzbek police on May 17 “started harassing and intimidating me, stopping me from entering the meeting venue (in Samarkand) and confiscating meeting materials.”

“This included the Uzbek police calling the (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) security officer asking for my info details,” said Sinani in a tweet.

May 17 was the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, which marks the World Health Organization’s declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1990. Uzbekistan is among the more than 60 countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

Caspar Veldkamp, an EBRD board member from the Netherlands, on May 17 posted a picture of him with Sinani and two other activists holding Pride tote bags. 

Sinani once he left Uzbekistan sent the Washington Blade a series of pictures that show security officials interrogating him outside the meeting. 

He is holding Pride-themed tote bags in two of the pictures. Sinani said he and the other activists used them “to keep meeting files to distribute to EBRD counterparts we met.”

“Tote bags were not forbidden in the venue, but were still confiscated only because they were Pride-themed,” he told the Blade.

Uzbek authorities on May 17, 2023, confiscated Nezir Sinani‘s Pride tote bags before they allowed him to attend a European Bank for Reconstruction and Development meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. (Photos courtesy of Nezir Sitani)

Veldkamp in an email to the Blade said he has “been in touch with” Sinani and “shared his information with the EBRD’s office of the secretary general, which gathers information regarding several incidents, including a similar one regarding my own staff.”

“They will follow up with the Uzbek authorities,” said Veldkamp.

Veldkamp told the Blade that Uzbek authorities have yet to respond.

The EBRD’s 32nd annual Meeting and Business Forum took place in Samarkand from May 16-19.

The State Department’s 2022 human rights report notes “at least four cases” of authorities forcing men to undergo so-called anal exams between 2017-2020. Anvar Latipov, a gay man from Uzbekistan who the U.S. has granted asylum, last month told the Blade during an exclusive interview in D.C. that a group of vigilantes broadcast online a video of a man they forced to sit on a bottle.

‘Criminalization and discrimination is completely unacceptable’

The State Department report cites other activists who said “members of the LGBTQI+ community in Tashkent (the Uzbek capital) were being harassed by both local authorities and private citizens and were on ‘red alert,’ and were seeking to avoid going out in public” after a group of men attacked blogger Miraziz Bazarov in 2022. Latipov told the Blade that transgender Uzbeks and people with HIV/AIDS face additional discrimination and persecution.

The Uzbek government previously kicked the EBRD kicked out of Uzbekistan after it criticized the country’s human rights record. Latipov noted to the Blade the EBRD now has $2.4 billion in 69 active projects in the country.

Latipov spoke with the Blade while he was in D.C. to lobby the World Bank Group and other multilateral development banks to pressure the Uzbek government to stop its persecution of LGBTQ and intersex people. Sinani and two other activists — Irena Cvetkovic, executive director of Coalitions Margins in North Macedonia, and Amarildo Fecanji, the Albania-based executive director of ERA – LGBTI Equal Rights Association for Western Balkans — were with Latipov.

“In Samarkand I attended the annual meetings of the EBRD with the aim of raising awareness on the brutal policies of Uzbekistan toward the LGBTI community,” Sinani told the Blade in a lengthy statement. “EBRD has a role to play to include the LGBTI community in its development projects to be able to fully deliver on its mandate.”

Sinani said he met with EBRD President Odile Renaud-Basso, EBRD board members and management “as part of my engagement there.”

“The Uzbek police stopped me from entering the meeting venue following a speech I held at the main meeting of EBRD board of directors with the civil society representatives,” Sinani told the Blade. “The police confiscated tote bags we used to handout reading marerials to the counterparts we met. Materials raised awareness on the brutal crackdown of Uzbek government on the LGBTI community in the country.”

“The behavior of the Uzbek police is a reflection of the situation in the country toward the LGBTI community. In this case they harrased and intimated me for the sole reason of raising awareness on the situation on the ground. With the LGBTI community in the country they go harsh, way harsh. They imprison them after doctors establish their sexual orientation via anal examinations, which WHO regards as a form of torture,” he said. “Such criminalization and discrimination is completely unacceptable and EBRD, alone the other international finance institutions, need to condemn and demand from the Uzbek government to repeal the law that enables them to hunt down the LGBTI community.”

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Taiwan Parliament bill allows gay couples to jointly adopt kids

Taiwan remains the only jurisdiction in Asia to have legalized same-sex marriage

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Legislative Yuan (parliament) of the Republic of China in Taipei, Taiwan (Photo Credit: Jiang 该用户能以地道的中文进行交流)

TAIPEI, Taiwan – A week before the fourth anniversary of Taiwan granting the legal right to same-sex couples to marry on 24 May 2019, the parliament of the island republic passed an amendment allowing same-sex couples to jointly adopt children.

The rights were an amendment to the same-sex marriage bill that passed its third reading in the Legislative Yuan without objection, AFP/France 24 reported.

The amendment establishes that the process for joint adoption is now procedurally identical for same-sex couples as it is for heterosexual couples under Taiwan’s civil code.

A Democratic Progressive Party legislator Hung Sun-han joyfully announced the news on Twitter.

Earlier this year, the government of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen lifted restrictions on transnational same-sex marriage, allowing the island’s LGBTQ+ residents to marry partners from jurisdictions such as Japan or Hong Kong that have yet to legalize same-sex marriages.

Same-sex marriages between Taiwanese residents and those from mainland China are still prohibited. Taiwan remains the only jurisdiction in Asia to have legalized same-sex marriage.

“After four years of hard work, today the parliament finally passed the (bill for) adoption without blood relationship by same-sex couples,” the advocacy group Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights (TAPCPR) said in a statement.

The amendment comes after a family court in southern Kaohsiung City last year ruled in favour of a married gay man seeking to share parenthood of his husband’s adoptive child — the first verdict of its kind, AFP/France 24 reported.

Another Democratic Progressive Party lawmaker Fan Yun, draped in a rainbow flag, spoke to local media. “The amendment not only ensures the protection of children’s rights but also meets their best interest,” said Fan. “In the future, spouses and parents, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, can have full legal protection.”

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LGBT Center closed by government of China’s President Xi Jinping

In recent years the Chinese government has moved towards becoming more intolerant and homophobic towards LGBTQ people

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Beijing LGBT Center (Photo by Mitch Altman)

BEIJING, China – The government of Chinese President Xi Jinping continued its crackdown on the country’s LGBTQ+ minority, abruptly forcing closure of the Beijing LGBT Center Monday.

In a brief message posted to the Sina Weibo microblogging website and on its WeChat account the Center stated: “We very regretfully announce, due to forces beyond our control, the Beijing LGBT Center will stop operating today.” 

With its closure, the Beijing LGBT Center, which has been operating for fifteen years since it was founded in 2008, leaves China’s LGBTQ+ people with few resources to turn to. In November of 2021, prominent LGBTQ+ equality rights legal group LGBT Rights Advocacy China, co-founded by Peng Yanzi and A. Qiang in the city of Guangzhou in 2013, and focused its efforts on securing legal rights for LGBTQ individuals through strategic lawsuits in China’s legal system, indefinitely suspended operations.

That suspension taking place after previously in July of 2021, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) permanently disabled and deleted dozens of LGBTQ student organizations WeChat accounts across China.

The accounts, which were primarily managed by students, advocate LGBTQ and gender equality, and providing support to LGBTQ students on university and college campuses.

The pages of those accounts now display the message: “According to internet regulations, we have screened all content and suspended this account.” The names of the accounts have been changed to “Unnamed.”

In a early morning phone call Wednesday local time to an activist in the Chinese capital who asked to not be identified, the Blade was told that there was an accelerated push by President Xi Jinping’s government to rein in LGBTQ+ groups and activists. The activist indicated that the center had published an article commemorating its 15 years of dedicated work last week, which “likely caught the scrutiny of both the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the Ministry of Public Security.”

“They are not the first group, nor are they the largest, but because Beijing LGBT Center was in Beijing, it represented China’s LGBT movement,” said another Chinese activist who requested anonymity out of fear for his safety to the Associated Press. “In our political, economic and cultural center, to have this type of organization. It was a symbol of the LGBT movement’s presence.”

A human rights activist from Hong Kong, who spoke to the Blade on the condition of remaining anonymous, pointed out that in recent years the government has moved towards becoming more intolerant and homophobic towards LGBTQ people.

Acceptance of LGBTQ individuals in China has varied historically. In modern China, homosexuality is neither a crime nor officially regarded as an illness in China. For decades, the legal status of consensual same-sex activity between men was ambiguous- although at one point consensual sexual acts between people of the same sex were banned under a law on hooliganism in 1979 with punishments ranging from imprisonment to execution. That was cleared up in the revised criminal code of 1997 as China moved to decriminalize homosexuality.

In 2001, the Chinese Society of Psychiatry removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. This is consistent with the consensus of global medical associations that homosexuality is not a medical condition. But same-sex marriage is still illegal and the topic remains taboo socially.

Chinese government officials increasingly push the narrative that LGBTQ+ culture is an imported “Western” idea, while expressing concern that the country’s big tech platforms are spreading subversive views and ideas that could upend traditional ideas of gender.

In an action promulgated by the government of President and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping this week, China’s National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) ordered broadcasters to “resolutely put an end to sissy men and other abnormal esthetics.”

In the directive, the NRTA used the term “Niang pao” which means “girlie guns” — more commonly translated as “sissy” an offensive description of effeminate men. The directive is seen as taking direct aim at the idols of the Chinese music industry who tend to be in their late teens to mid twenties, are thin, and dress in what could be loosely deemed an androgynously ambiguous manner.

The nationwide crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists started in 2015 after Xi came to power.

Speaking with the Associated Press, the activist noted that police pressure on rights groups increased in the past few years, the activist said. Police often invited LGBTQ+ groups to “drink tea” — a euphemism for unofficial meetings that police use to keep track of certain targets. That used to happen in public spaces, but started taking place in private spaces, such as directly in front of activists’ homes. Police also started taking activists to the police station for these “teas.”

The Beijing LGBT Center has faced ongoing challenges to stay open throughout its existence, with obstacles arising from both funding limitations and political pressures. LGBTQ groups cannot register as non-governmental organizations in China, making it difficult to obtain government approval for events and secure external funding.

Because of those restrictions, groups like the Center have been forced to create fundraising events at local bars and or receive direct financial support from groups outside of China. The Center also began to rent out its space to other, related organizations on weekdays at below-market rates, effectively tapping into its biggest asset—its real estate.

In addition to this there was direct financial support from the Center’s sister organization, the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

This latest move is seen by some China-watchers as another in a decades long battle by Beijing to combat Western influences on the younger generations of Chinese.

Conservatives in Chinese society and government charge that young Chinese youth are turning into ‘soft boys,’ reflecting concern that the Chinese pop stars who have embraced the pop-culture phenomenon in part due to the influence of the South Korean pop music and all-encompassing genre known as K-Pop, are failing to encourage China’s young men to be masculine enough.

In some government circles the source told the Blade its seen as overtly homosexual and targeting young Chinese males. One area that has raised the ire of officials is video games.

Game developers already were required to submit new titles for government approval before they could be released. Officials have called on them to add nationalistic themes, the AP reported.

“There is a tendency in China for some people to relate homosexuality and LGBT people to Western lifestyles or capitalistic, bourgeois decadence, so this was in line with a moral panic,” said Hongwei Bao, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Nottingham and specialist in queer politics in China.

“Especially now, there’s tension between China-West relations, so there is likely to be a heightened sense of nationalism which sees LGBT issues, feminist issues, as Western, as unfit for China.”

A closeted gay government source told the Blade that world events factor in to the crackdowns. Citing the rising tensions with Taiwan and its closest ally, the United States as an example.

He noted that in addition to gay men and lesbians, the Center had opened its doors and resources to bisexual and transgender individuals, who themselves are minorities within the LGBT community and, as a result, face particular challenges.

“Their shutdown makes one feel very helpless. As groups large and small shut down or stop hosting events, there’s no longer a place where one can see hope,” said another Chinese activist who requested anonymity for fear of government retribution told the AP.

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Inside the hidden lesbian nightclubs of Seoul

For a few hours, women can gather without fear of discrimination

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A busy street in Hongdae. (Photo by hwan/Bigstock)

SEOUL, South Korea — Hongdae, a neighborhood in Seoul, South Korea, is known for its vibrant nightlife and indie music scene. By day, it’s a shopping and café mecca. By night it’s a crazy, alcohol-fueled playground. What’s easy to miss — and not even many Koreans living in Hongdae know about — is that hidden in plain sight, there are also secret lesbian clubs where women can gather and be themselves without fear of judgment or discrimination.

“Hongdae is the lesbian area of Seoul?!” my good friend blurted out when I told him over dinner. He’s been a resident of Hongdae for more than seven years but had never noticed. Most Koreans don’t know any LGBTQ+ people as Korean society is conservative and not accepting of homosexuality. Hongdae’s reputation as a more free-thinking, hipster haven makes it a perfect location for openness — albeit in private. 

In South Korea, homosexuality is not illegal, but it is not widely accepted, especially in more conservative areas of the country. Seoul is more open compared to the countryside but not open enough for lesbians to be open. Same-sex couples cannot legally marry or adopt children and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community is still prevalent. 

Allen, a Korean woman in her 20s says, “There is a very strong homophobic atmosphere [in Korea] regardless of generation.”

Despite these challenges, the LGBTQ+ community in South Korea has been gradually (very gradually) gaining some visibility and acceptance in recent years such as an LGBTQ+ dating reality show “Merry Queer” following lesbian, gay and Transgender couples. Seoul’s gay Pride parade — which last year drew thousands of participants despite protests from conservative religious groups — shows a shift in thinking too. However, it’s not enough progress as lesbian and bisexual women are still meeting in the dark. 

One way in which the community has been able to connect and support each other is through secret lesbian clubs. Goon Young* is a Seoul freelancer in her mid-20s. Growing up she was constantly told that being straight is “natural” which left her feeling confused about her sexuality. “I thought I was bisexual when I was in college. I figured out that I don’t like men only about two years ago.” Goon Young enjoys hanging out at Hongdae’s lesbian club scene regularly. 

These clubs are not advertised openly and are often hidden in inconspicuous side-streets, or in basements behind mainstream clubs.

One of these secret clubs is close to an infamous drinking spot for foreigners and when some foreign men were turned away for not being women, they looked visibly confused. It’s a large, luxe club with a strict no photograph rule. There’s table service and the DJ blasts Korean rap such as Jay Park and Zico. 

This club and most of the others won’t easily pop up when you search on your phone’s map so usually lesbians need to get to know another lesbian to ask around for the exact location. This typically involves going to an LGBTQ+ bar first, or meet-up group and making friends there, as blurting out to your work buddies “Oh, by the way, is anyone else here gay?” wouldn’t go down too well in Korea. Goon Young concurs, “I’m pretty open to people that I love, someone like my mom or friends, but you can’t really tell people who are coworkers or someone [you] just met.” 

Discrimination and stigma against the LGBTQ+ community persist in many areas of South Korean society, including the workplace and school. Many LGBTQ+ individuals still face rejection from their families and friends, and some even resort to conversion therapy to try and change their sexual orientation.

Luckily Goon Young’s mom is supportive, but not entirely convinced. “I came out to my mom — who loves me — last year. She still loves me and cheers me up when I have heartbreaks with girlfriends. But she says she still can’t take it seriously and gay things are not ‘natural,’ she always tells me to meet some good guys and date them even though I always reply to her that I don’t like men.”

The lesbian nightlife scene’s purpose is truly to create a safe space and respect the privacy of all. There’s so much trust in these clubs that “lonely heart” style personal ads are displayed on the big projector screen behind the DJ in the first club where I partied. After all, queer dating isn’t as straight-forward in a country that prizes straightness.

Inside these clubs, women let their guard down and can be themselves. They can dance, drink, and socialize without fear of being judged or harassed. Legally speaking, South Korea doesn’t have comprehensive LGBTQ+ anti-discrimination laws so the fear of physical safety for the LGBTQ+ community really means that a “safe space” carries much more weight than a “safe space” in a country where there’s more acceptance of gay rights. 

Another safe space was a tiny club a little walk away from the big, “lonely hearts personals” club. What it lacked in size it made up for in chaotic ENERGY! Nobody was sitting in a corner here and after picking up my free drink included with the entry fee (every club did this), it was hit after hit from rapper Lil Nas X to K-pop group BLACKPINK.   

Although lesbian and bi women were dancing wildly, enjoying the night, even within these safe spaces, many club-goers still feel the need to remain cautious as the fear of being outed can be overwhelming. 

The last club I went to carried this caution. Located on an inconspicuous street, women were looking over their shoulders when paying in. That is, right up until the elevator doors shut. Once shut, women let their guards down and asked me how I found out about this place. Once inside — free drink handled (every club did Budweiser as a free drink option) — it was a playground of EDM, large opulent bottle service with half-undressed bartenders. One of them was even passing around free shots from one of the stripper pole podiums.

If there’s a lesbian heaven, I think I caught a glimpse of it here.

The cool air hit me as I left for home but nobody walking past suspected that the women leaving this club were not heterosexual. The fact that these clubs are still a secret highlights the need for greater acceptance and visibility of the LGBTQ+ community in South Korea. While progress has been made in recent years, there is still a long way to go before LGBTQ+ individuals can openly express their identities without fear of discrimination or being attacked.

“Young people in Korea are pretty open to LGBTQ, [but] of course, there are [some] who hate LGBTQ people. Most of the old people just can’t take it”, Goon Young says. 

The existence of secret lesbian clubs in Hongdae and other parts of Seoul is a testament to the resilience and strength of the LGBTQ+ community in South Korea, also. Despite facing significant challenges and obstacles, these women have found a way to connect and support each other, creating safe spaces where they can be themselves.

Hongdae’s secret world of lesbian clubs offers a glimpse behind the curtain. Despite many hurdles, on a late, spring night in underground Hongdae clubs, women danced and flirted freely for the few hours they could be themselves.

(Editor’s note: Some names have been changed to protect identities of sources. Ash Potter is a freelance journalist based in Seoul.) 

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South Korean capital cancels queer festival over Christian event

The organizing committee “has no choice but to suspect that the Christian event was planned to oppose the queer culture festival”

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SEOUL Queer Culture Festival 2022 (Screenshot/YouTube KTV)

SEOUL – The Seoul Metropolitan Government announced this past week that it had cancelled its approval for the organizers of the 24th annual Seoul Queer Culture Festival (SQCF), to hold the massive LGBTQ+ event scheduled for July 1 at Seoul Plaza.

The huge central plaza is located in front of Seoul City Hall at Taepyeongno, Jung-gu in the South Korean capital city.

The daily English-language newspaper ‘The Korea Times’ reported that the SQCF organizing committee and Christian Television System (CTS) Culture Foundation had both applied to book the Plaza for their respective events on April 3, 90 days before their events scheduled for July 1.

Since 2015, the event has been held in front of the city hall, except for 2020 and 2021 when the coronavirus pandemic rules prevented any public gatherings. The festival has drawn thousands of attendees each summer to downtown Seoul, supported by human rights groups, university clubs, and foreign embassies. It routinely draws protests, and the police presence is often heavy.

In a statement to local media outlets, Yang Sun-woo, chief organiser of the SQCF, said the city’s move is an act of discrimination. “Each year, we struggle to secure a venue to hold the event,” she said.

“In previous years, the city government held in-person meetings with all concerned parties to rearrange the dates if more than one group wanted to book Seoul Plaza, as stated in the regulations. But this year, the city government cut corners and tossed the issue to the civic committee on very short notice,” SQCF organizing committee Chair Sun-woo told The Korea Times, Thursday.

Yang added that the group became aware of the city’s approval of the CTS event before the final decision was delivered on Wednesday, via a local media interview with Lee Sung-bae, a ruling People Power Party member of the Seoul Metropolitan Council, as well as the CTS’ concert promotion message on its website.

Yang said that, given the circumstances, the SQCF organizing committee “has no choice but to suspect that the Christian event was planned to oppose the queer culture festival.”

The CTS Cultural Foundation is linked to the CTS Christian broadcast outlet that opposes homosexuality and clashes over the Seoul Queer Culture Festival are a yearly battle as same-sex marriage is not recognised and anti-discrimination laws face strong resistance by those groups.

A spokesperson for CTS Cultural Foundation claimed that the timing was not aimed at blocking the LGBTQ festival.

Inside the hidden lesbian nightclubs of Seoul

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Multilateral development banks pressured to urge Uzbekistan to stop anti-LGBTQ+ crackdown

Anvar Latipov met with bank representatives in D.C.

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Anvar Latipov, an LGBTQ+ activist from Uzbekistan, right, meets with World Bank Group Executive Director Koen Davidse in D.C. on April 11, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Chad Dobson)

WASHINGTON — A gay man from Uzbekistan has called for the World Bank Group and other multilateral development banks to pressure his homeland’s government to stop its persecution of LGBTQ+ and intersex people.

Anvar Latipov in a letter he sent to World Bank Group President David Malpass this month notes the bank has $4.76 billion “in 27 active projects in Uzbekistan.” The letter also highlights that more than 33,000 people have signed an AllOut petition “condemning the criminalization, torture and blackmail of LGBTQ+ people in Uzbekistan and demanding that respect for human rights be a prerequisite for the international community’s support for this government.”

“Human rights are the foundation for social and economic inclusion, which we know to be central to the development goals at the heart of the World Bank’s work,” wrote Latipov. “Considering the bank’s commitments to consultation, vulnerable groups and nondiscrimination, how will the World Bank ensure the meaningful participation and protection of LGBTQ+ people in its operations in Uzbekistan? What will the World Bank do to address the widespread violation of human rights in Uzbekistan?”

Latipov has also sent similar letters to Asian Development Bank President Masatsugu Asakawa, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development President Odile Renaud-Basso and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva.

• The ADB has $4.64 billion in 35 active projects in Uzbekistan

• The EBRD has $2.4 billion in 69 active projects in Uzbekistan

• Uzbekistan has more than $370 million “in outstanding purchases and loans” to the IMF

Latipov last week met with World Bank Group Executive Koen Davidse in D.C. during the World Bank Group/IMF spring meetings. He also sat down with ADB Managing Director Woochong Um, Renaud-Basso and ADB U.S. Director Chantale Wong, who is the first openly lesbian American ambassador.

Latipov was among those who spoke on a panel that Adriana Kugler, the U.S. executive director of the World Bank Group, moderated.

Three LGBTQ+ and intersex rights activists from Kosovo, North Macedonia and Albania — Re-course Co-Director Nezir Sinani, Coalitions Margins Executive Director Irena Cvetkovic and ERA – LGBTI Equal Rights Association for Western Balkans Executive Director Amarildo Fecanji — also met with Davidse. Sinani, Cvetkovic and Fecanji were also with Latipov when he spoke exclusively with the Washington Blade on April 12.

Latipov said the banks “can create change” if “they unite forces,” but he conceded any effort to challenge the Uzbek government over its LGBTQ+ and intersex rights record will prove difficult.

“If it is done through ways of silent diplomacy there may be a change,” he said.

The Uzbek government previously kicked the EBRD kicked out of Uzbekistan it criticized the country’s human rights record. Latipov referenced this situation when he spoke with the Blade.

“There is this thin line they have to talk to get this, but I think by waiting and not doing anything is also not an option,” he said. “People are suffering.”

The EBRD’s 2023 Annual Meeting of its Board of Governors will take place in Samarkand, Uzbekistan from May 16-17. May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia.

Living in US has ‘been a blessing’

Latipov, 36, was born in Samarkand.

He moved to Moscow in 2004 and graduated from the Moscow International Institute for Humanities and Linguistics in 2011.

Latipov in 2014 asked for asylum in the U.S. based on the persecution he said he suffered in Uzbekistan because of his sexual orientation. He won asylum in 2017 and now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“It’s been a blessing,” Latipov told the Blade. “[I’m] very, very grateful for the opportunities I have been given in the United States to be who I am.”

Uzbekistan is among the more than 60 countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

The State Department’s 2022 human rights report notes “at least four cases” of authorities forcing men to undergo so-called anal exams between 2017-2020. Latipov noted to the Blade that a group of vigilantes broadcast online a video of a man they forced to sit on a bottle.

The report cites activists who said “members of the LGBTQI+ community in Tashkent (the Uzbek capital) were being harassed by both local authorities and private citizens and were on ‘red alert,’ and were seeking to avoid going out in public” after a group of men attacked blogger Miraziz Bazarov in 2022. Latipov told the Blade that Transgender Uzbeks and people with HIV/AIDS face additional discrimination and persecution.

“There is no way you can lead a life because everyone’s in everyone’s business,” he said. “It’s like being crushed by both sides, by laws on one hand and on another hand by society and family values.”

The U.N. World Tourism Organization has chosen Samarkand as its 2023 World Tourism Capital. 

The Blade has reached out to the World Bank Group for comment for this story.

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Members of Congress meet with Transgender activist in Japan

California Congressman Mark Takano among trip participants

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Fumino Sugiyama (Photo courtesy of Congressman Maxwell Alejandro Frost's Twitter page)

TOKYO — A group of U.S. lawmakers last month met with a prominent Transgender activist in Japan while they were in the country.

U.S. Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Fla.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and French Hill (R-Ark.) met with Fumino Sugiyama, a former member of Japan’s female fencing team who is now fighting for legal recognition of Trans people in Japan. The D.C.-based Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, which organized the congressional delegation that also included a trip to South Korea, arranged the meeting.

“Members of the delegation were very, very impressed with Fumino,” Takano told the Washington Blade last week during a telephone interview.

Frost, who is the first Gen Z’er elected to Congress, on Feb. 24 in a series of tweets praised Fumino and his advocacy efforts.

“One of my favorite meetings in Tokyo was meeting with Trans organizer and activist, Fumino Sugiyama,” tweeted Frost. “Japan is still working through passing real anti-discrimination laws to protect LGBTQ+ folks and I felt incredibly inspired by Fumino and his fight.”

“He laid out the struggle and how the community is battling both legal and cultural roadblocks to even be recognized,” said Frost. “I spoke with him about the current fight in Florida and how Gov. DeSantis is targeting LGBTQ+ kids.”

Frost also said he is “working on setting up a virtual meeting between Fumino and a student activists in Florida.”

“I think his story can provide some inspiration for the struggle here,” he said.

The trip began on Feb. 20 and ended on Feb. 26.

Takano arrived in Japan before the trip began.

The openly gay man of Japanese descent visited Pride House Tokyo, the country’s first permanent LGBTQ+ and intersex community center that opened ahead of the 2021 Summer Olympics that took place in Tokyo. 

Takano participated in a “fireside chat” with LGBTQ+ and intersex Japanese people and expatriots, and met with a Goldman Sachs executive who he said is one of the few prominent people in the country who is out.

“Japan is still, pretty much I would say a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ society, but unlike the United States, Japan as a whole does not have violent homophobia where people are beat up or gay bashed or that kind of thing,” said Takano. “There is harassment and bullying in the schools. People face discomfort in the workplace and … until now it’s not like a coming out kind of society, but it’s not a place where (homosexuality is) criminalized and people suffer violence.”

From left: U.S. Reps. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Fla.) and Mark Takano (D-Calif.); Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yasutoshi Nishimura; U.S. Reps. French Hill (R-Ark.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) (Photo courtesy of Mark Takano’s office)

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel also invited Takano to attend a reception with members of the Japanese Diet (legislature)’s LGBT Caucus. (Takano noted to the Blade that none of them are openly LGBTQ+ or intersex.)

“I got a great sense of where things were, the state of play of this question of nondiscrimination language,” said Takano.

The trip began less than a month after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s top aide, Masayoshi Arai, told reporters that he would “not want to live next door” to a same-sex couple and he does “not even want to look at them.” Arai also said marriage equality in Japan would “change the way society is” and “quite a few people would abandon this country.”

Kishida fired Arai.

The prime minister on Feb. 17 apologized for Arai’s comments during a meeting with Pride House Tokyo President Gon Matsunaka and other LGBTQ+ and intersex activists. Kishida on Feb. 28 nevertheless said he does not feel the lack of marriage rights for same-sex couples in Japan is discriminatory.

Members of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party this week introduced a marriage equality bill in the Diet lower house. 

Takano noted 20 members of the “hardline” Abe faction of Kishida’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe led before his 2022 assassination remain the main stumbling block to marriage equality and efforts to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Takano stressed, however, the activists with whom he spoke in Japan welcome the increased attention around these issues.

“The fact that he’s having to comment on marriage equality is indicative of the Japanese media focusing attention on LGBT issues,” he said, referring to Kishida. “The sense among Japanese queer activists is that keeping the LGBT issue, or LGBT issues on the front page is very much something that works to their advantage.”

U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) speaks with Japanese reporters at Pride House Tokyo (Photo courtesy of Takano’s office)

Takano further acknowledged Arai’s comments and reaction to them has sparked a renewed debate about LGBTQ+ and intersex rights in the country.

“He (Arai) really hasn’t suffered a huge consequence for those remarks,” said Takano, noting Arai remains in his post with the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. “The question in Japan right now is will they just enact a law that is symbolic and checks the box, or will they advance substantive LGBT nondiscrimination protections.”

Takano referenced a Kyodo News poll that indicates 65 percent of people in Japan support legal protections for LGBTQ+ and intersex people. This figure increases to 80 percent among young people.

“It’s no wonder the activists are saying keep this in the news,” he said.

Takano was with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) when she led a congressional delegation to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore last summer. Takano led a congressional delegation to Japan in November 2021.

“Japan plays such a key role in the Indo-Pacific as America’s most vital ally,” he said. “Japan moving forward in this area of LGBT rights and equality, I believe, will be highly consequential to progress in Asia as a whole.” 

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